On March 1, 2012, the Internet was up in arms about a court case decision on February 29th that gave the police the right to search a cell phone without issuing a warrant. Over a month and a half later, the discussion has died down and not much is being said about the ruling.
Law enforcement authorities had reason to believe that Abel Forez-Lopez was a supplier of illegal drugs to another drug dealer, who in turn had a customer who was a paid police informant. During the delivery of the drugs, police arrested Lopez and his accomplices, seizing the cell phone he had on his person and another two left in his vehicle.
At the scene of the drug sale, an officer searched each cell phone for its number, which the government later used to subpoena three months of call history from the telephone company. The data from the call history included calls between Lopez, the dealers and other conspirators. At trial the government sought to introduce the call history from the phones into evidence.
Lopez’s attorney argued any information gathered from the cell phones was an unwarranted illegal search and should be inadmissible in court. The officers said the reason for the immediate search was because they felt the phone data could be remotely wiped and didn’t want to lose any potential evidence that might be crucial to their case.
In his final decision, Judge Richard Posner, decided the evidence was admissible because the search of the cell phone was limited to finding its number and not a search of the contents. He also wrote that obtaining the information from the phone company was not considered a search because by subscribing to the wireless service, the user is deemed to surrender any privacy interest he may have had in his phone number.
Are You Worried?
I wondered whether this was something to get excited over and at first I thought it was. But after reading through the judge’s decision, I can see why the discussion has died down. Technology is constantly forcing us to look at certain situations in a new light. If the search of the phone would have gone deeper (files, apps, etc.), I would certainly have an issue with the decision and how searches of this manner could be abused. The officers seemed to have collected enough evidence before the arrest and the fact that they knew to search only for the numbers, leaves me to believe they knew what they were doing.
So what do you think? Should we be worried about our privacy and law enforcement asking to search our mobile devices?
Read the court’s final decision here.